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House of Sand and Fog


Peter T Chattaway
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Oh. My. Goodness.

I can't remember the last time I cried like that during a movie. There are three scenes in this film that got my eyes welling up, and on the third one, I just lost it. I knew this film would be dark, sad, a tragedy of Greek proportions -- but nothing quite prepared me for THIS.

I'm not even sure I want to talk about it at the moment, or go into the specific bits and pieces of the film that made it what it is (though I will say that the subplot involving the deputy was perhaps the film's weakest link -- although it had its own intriguing thematic reasons for being, this subplot seemed to exist more for plot-mechanical reasons than anything else, especially near the end). But as soon as this movie was over, I had to call my girlfriend and leave her a message telling her I don't ever want to be in a situation where I am "ashamed" of anything in front of her, or where I feel the need to hide anything from her. SO MUCH of what drives this film is the search for earthly pride and honour, and SO MUCH of what goes wrong in this film could have been avoided, or at least tempered somewhat, if the main characters had simply been willing to swallow that pride and open up to those who were closest to them.

Definite top-ten contender, this.

And if Ben Kingsley isn't nominated for an Oscar for this, I'll kill someone.

Oh, and note to Jennifer Connelly buffs: This is at least the third film, after Dark City and Requiem for a Dream, in which a significant scene depicts her standing out by the far end of a pier.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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I saw this a few months ago, and I am SO GLAD the wait is over, and we can finally discuss it.

My review.

Peter wrote:

This is at least the third film, after Dark City and Requiem for a Dream, in which a significant scene depicts her standing out by the far end of a pier.

:eek7:

P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

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Wow, Jeffrey. Great review. The trailer just makes it look so -- so typical. I'll have to see this one based solely on your review (and Peter's tears).

For Christmas, i received a gift card to the local cinema that's playing it. I'll see it soon.

-s.

In an interstellar burst, I am back to save the Universe.

Filmsweep by Persona. 2013 Film Journal. IlPersona.

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In the midst of Ebert's review of "House," he includes this little gem:

"A plot is about things that happen. A story is about people who behave."

I hadn't heard or read that one before. If this is one of Ebert's maxims, forgive me for repeating it. If it's not, it should be. It summarized exactly what I've been trying for years to communicate to friends who ask me what a movie is about, when what I want them to ask is how the movie is about it (that's one Ebert maxim that I do know). This distinction between plot and behavior is one aspect of that, I suppose.

BTW, "House" was not among the top contenders for me to see this weekend -- I have so many movies I need to see, and a class paper and test to fit in by Jan. 9 -- but these reviews and remarks have caused me to rethink my priorities. Tell me: If it's a choice between "House" and "In America," which should I see? "Both" is not an option.

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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Christian wrote:

: In the midst of Ebert's review of "House," he includes this little gem:

: "A plot is about things that happen. A story is about people who behave."

Great line!

: Tell me: If it's a choice between "House" and "In America," which should

: I see? "Both" is not an option.

Definitely House.

Jeff, I'll read your review soon, but for now I think I'm still processing the film, really. I have a feeling your review is one I will want to read and think about carefully.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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Hmmm. I still favor In America over this film. It's a much fuller picture of life, with humor and hope in the midst of its angst, where House is as bleak as they come.

P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

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Jeffrey Overstreet wrote:

: Hmmm. I still favor In America over this film. It's a much fuller picture of

: life, with humor and hope in the midst of its angst, where House is as

: bleak as they come.

I'll take honest bleakness over dishonest sweetness any ol' day. My concerns about the third-act contortions of the deputy subplot aside, I don't think House rings one false note, and indeed I was moved repeatedly by the complexity and the multi-dimensionality of the characters and performances, whereas In America tended to fall back on clich

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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I'll take honest bleakness over dishonest sweetness any ol' day. My concerns about the third-act contortions of the deputy subplot aside, I don't think House rings one false note, and indeed I was moved repeatedly by the complexity and the multi-dimensionality of the characters and performances
The deputy subplot was a problem for me. I had a terrible time finding the character at all credible. (My wife says the downward spiral of Kathy and Lester is much clearer in the book, but it just didn't click with me here.)
A foreign movie can't be stupid.

-from the film
Armin

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I went to this movie last night based on this thread and based on Jeffrey's review. Few things.

1. LOVED Jeffrey's review as usual. Question. Can you speak more about how Behrani (Kingsley) "want what they (he) want(ed), and they (he) want it their (his) way, without having to demonstrate any responsibility"? Also, I had a hard time seeing where selfishness is disguised as generosity, though I could see where lust was disguised as compassion in the character of the policeman. Both of these statements are true of all people. I believe the term for that is hypocrisy. Lastly, you said that Perelman wisely refrains from exaggeration or revelry in his characters' despair. How would that look on screen in this movie?

2. Also, Peter, what were the parts that made you shed some tears? I can guess what they were but could you tell me and explain why? It was good that I read this thread and the review before I went and saw the movie, so it helped me in being more discerning.

Spoiler

I think the one thing that bothered me most is when Connelly was in the telephone booth calling her brother ready to commit sideways and he was interested more in his business deal than in helping her out. Talk about the pursuing of happiness recklessly. Sheesh...

Brandon

"God is so great and merciful that he does not require that we name him precisely. God is even willing to be anonymous for a time. Remember how God led the Three Wise Men from the East to Christ? The Wise Men did not know the God of Israel or Jesus. They worshipped the stars. So God used a star to lure them."--The Twelve Steps for Christians

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BBBCanada4 wrote:

: LOVED Jeffrey's review as usual.

Yipes, I still have to get around to reading this.

: Also, I had a hard time seeing where selfishness is disguised as generosity . . .

Is this a reference to Kingsley's character? One thing that I think is absolutely crucial to his character is that whole honour-shame paradigm that he brings with him from the Middle East -- he scorns Connelly's character when she tries to bring shame to him and his family, but aha, when she shows up in his driveway ready to kill herself, suddenly she is a "blessing" and a "wounded bird" that he can help; his generosity is grounded largely in the honour that comes from knowing that he has power over her, with him being able to help her. When he HIMSELF is in a position of powerlessness, the shame is too much for him, and he simply cannot allow himself to hope that anyone will be similarly generous with him.

: Also, Peter, what were the parts that made you shed some tears? I can

: guess what they were but could you tell me and explain why?

SPOILERS

The first two scenes merely made me choke up a bit, but the third scene made me cry.

The first scene was, I think, the one where Kingsley visits his son's bedroom the morning after he slapped his wife and confesses -- to his son, not to his wife -- that he was wrong to treat his wife this way and that his son must be better when he himself is married some day; again, the honour-shame paradigm seems to prevent Kingsley from actually confessing his weakness to his wife herself, but with his son, there is room for some tenderness, and this was where I really began to see Kingsley bring out the dimensions of his character.

The second scene was the one where Kingsley's wife is hauling Connelly over the toilet and then she yells at her husband and son to go away (does she slam the door in their faces, or do they close the door at her command?). The wife's ferocity, indeed her empowerment, as SHE becomes the one who is entitled to help Connelly (because she is the only woman in the house and therefore the only person who can look upon Connelly's naked body without shaming her), and as SHE becomes the one who calls the shots in that house, just got to me.

And the third scene -- oy vey. The moment Kingsley bolted out the door of the police station, running to the hospital, bloodstains all over his shirt, I choked up again, and then when he knelt in prayer at the hospital, I just let the tears spill. Here was a man who was all about appearances, here was a man for whom saving face and keeping his chin up high and maintaining his honour was everything, and all of a sudden, he realizes that the one thing that really, really matters most to him is on the verge of being taken away from him forever, and he runs out into that street with these shameful stains splattered all over him, and he doesn't give a damn. "I want only my son ... I want only my son ... I want only my son ... " You have to be a REALLY broken and desperate man to cast aside decades of honour-and-shame sensitization like that.

Oh, man, I'm almost getting verklempt just typing this. Ben Kingsley is a god. If he doesn't get the Oscar, or at least a nomination, there is no justice.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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RIFE WITH SPOILERS

Observations on HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG

This is a film that sticks with you. It's rich and intricate, and the more you reflect on its specifics, the more its meaning and mysteries present themselves.

My wife has been mulling ever since we saw the film last night, and at one point she said she thought the film was like a poem. I think she meant that it was moody and sparse and evocative, that it engaged the senses and didn't always make its intentions known: we couldn't constantly see the machineries of plot grinding away. Her comment made me think, though, of film poetry in another sense: this movie rhymes. Over and over again, images and scenes "sound like" what's come before, and in that way the film gains a remarkable sense of unity and interconnectedness. Kathy stops (or is stopped?) on the threshold of "her" home to avoid getting blood on the floor: earlier, Behrani cautioned his son (who didn't seem to care) about getting blood on things when he came into their apartment with his knees bloodied from skateboarding. The plastic bag Kathy's foot is wrapped in is echoed by the garment bag at the end of the film. Nadi offers tea to Kathy

I've posted a couple hundred of my Soul Food Movies write-ups at letterboxd

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I am but a DWARF and a WORM amongst giants. Thanks for your thoughts. Hmmm...:-k More later.

Brandon

"God is so great and merciful that he does not require that we name him precisely. God is even willing to be anonymous for a time. Remember how God led the Three Wise Men from the East to Christ? The Wise Men did not know the God of Israel or Jesus. They worshipped the stars. So God used a star to lure them."--The Twelve Steps for Christians

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Thank you for your thoughts, Ron. You always remind me that I can't determine where and when the Holy Spirit will be to minister to people. I need to let up a bit on my broad condemnations of 21 Grams. Wherever there is excellence... and there is some in that film, no doubt... God can speak to someone.

I also realize, with great dismay, that I didn't remember to include House of Sand and Fog in my year-end list, and I'm going to have to go home and repair that.

P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

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his generosity is grounded largely in the honour that comes from knowing that he has power over her, with him being able to help her. When he HIMSELF is in a position of powerlessness, the shame is too much for him, and he simply cannot allow himself to hope that anyone will be similarly generous with him.

I like this. I

Brandon

"God is so great and merciful that he does not require that we name him precisely. God is even willing to be anonymous for a time. Remember how God led the Three Wise Men from the East to Christ? The Wise Men did not know the God of Israel or Jesus. They worshipped the stars. So God used a star to lure them."--The Twelve Steps for Christians

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...if Ben Kingsley isn't nominated for an Oscar for this, I'll kill someone.

Perhaps this is too important a decision to place into the hands of a bunch of boneheads? Have you thought through all the possible consequences? Perhaps a strongly worded letter to the academy would be more appropriate?

One thing that I think is absolutely crucial to [Kingsley's] character is that whole honour-shame paradigm that he brings with him from the Middle East --

Good observations. Puts me in mind of Jewett's book we both like so well, Saint Paul Returns to the Movies: Triumph Over Shame. Wish he'd write another movie book.

The moment Kingsley bolted out the door of the police station, running to the hospital... Here was a man who was all about appearances, here was a man for whom saving face and keeping his chin up high and maintaining his honour was everything... and he runs out into that street with these shameful stains splattered all over him, and he doesn't give a damn. ...You have to be a REALLY broken and desperate man to cast aside decades of honour-and-shame sensitization like that.

One detail I can't get out of my mind is the way he runs, the way his arms and hands kind of just flop. He is utterly unmindful. Running isn't something he does much, and he doesn't run pretty. He just goes. Reminds me of Anthony Hopkins' tears in SHADOWLANDS: this character isn't accustomed to tears, and he weeps awkwardly, heedlessly. Kingsley and Hopkins: a pair of gods, in my estimation.

And I love Brandon's observation about the blood: really, this moment is the culmination of the other times we see blood, isn't it? So powerful.

I am but a DWARF and a WORM...

Who bears a remarkable resemblance to Martin Luther!

Wherever there is excellence... and there is some in that film, no doubt... God can speak to someone.

Though, for that matter, God can speak where there is utter mediocrity or downright incompetence. Fortunately He's not reliant on our skills to make Himself known.

I've been thinking a lot about your comments on Mrs Behrani, what a centre point of grace she is in the film.

After the Mass was done, I joined my friend at the local coffee shop where we talked about our faiths for an hour or so. After we said our good-byes, I went to a pay phone and retrieved my message.

I've posted a couple hundred of my Soul Food Movies write-ups at letterboxd

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I saw this a few nights ago and have talked about it quite a bit, just not here yet. Upon exiting the theater i felt both drained and invigorated, knowing that i had seen something that will most likely knock Elephant off my Top 10 list (comparing the two films, Elephant now seems so underdeveloped, perhaps even artificial.)

Legality vs. morality

Edited by stef

In an interstellar burst, I am back to save the Universe.

Filmsweep by Persona. 2013 Film Journal. IlPersona.

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I don't think he was deceiving his family. He simply wanted to keep the trappings of that dishonorable activity out of his household, and show up fully dressed, etc.

How is there anything dishonorable about showing up in America and working hard? What is this country founded on if not this principle?

I think he may have been deceiving his friends and extended family, however. At the wedding, they have no clue whom he works form ("Boeing?"), but later in the film he mentions having to slave away at two menial jobs to support the family.

Yet his son in that scene sheds some light when overhearing this conversation. The look on his face was, "You people don't know my dad. My dad is so high up the ladder you wouldn't know him. He comes home every day in a suit and tie -- he's a somebody." I saw a wealth of respect emanating from his gaze at this point.

-s.

Edited by stef

In an interstellar burst, I am back to save the Universe.

Filmsweep by Persona. 2013 Film Journal. IlPersona.

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I don't think House rings one false note

I've posted a couple hundred of my Soul Food Movies write-ups at letterboxd

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Gotcha. I see your point. And FWIW, i loved House. But i'd still like to know why we accept one form of lying to the family and see the other as completely wrong.

-s.

In an interstellar burst, I am back to save the Universe.

Filmsweep by Persona. 2013 Film Journal. IlPersona.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Once again I seem to be the odd man out.

As impressive and earnest as the film is on many levels, I couldn't help feeling that it wasn't as ambiguous and even-handed as it seems to think it is. From where I sat, it looked like Ben Kingsley and his family, though not perfect, were basically just, noble, hospitable, decent, and in the right, while Jennifer Connolly, though not unsympathetic and clearly having gotten a raw deal, was irresponsible, pathetic, selfish, immoral, and in the wrong.

Ron Eldard, though three-dimensionally human and characterized with insight and compassion, was basically a rat bastard. (His wife, who only gets the one scene, was a stereotype of wronged innocence, not that there's anything wrong with that.)

There was a certain inevitability in the way moral choices led inexorably to increasingly more dire consequences. Yet sometimes I felt that the movie cheated. (MAJOR SPOILER.) I know, people under stress, split second decision, yadda yadda yadda, but I'm sorry, it strikes me as a contrivance to get us our tragic ending that when the son pulls the gun on Eldard and two cops come running up with their own guns drawn, instead of freezing and gingerly putting the gun down, he swings in confusion and winds up pointing it at them.

And then, as awed as I was as Kingsley's "I want only my son" scene, I was also acutely aware of the issue being at that point in the hands of the screenwriter. Maybe there's something wrong with me.

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

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A big thanks to Ron for his wonderful review of House of Sand and Fog. That helped crystallize a number of things I had been thinking about. The sophistication of visual rhyming is genuinely fantastic. I had caught a few of them, but you really nailed it.

As much as I enjoyed the movie, I still have to agree with...

The deputy subplot was a problem for me. I had a terrible time finding the character at all credible.

and...

There was a certain inevitability in the way moral choices led inexorably to increasingly more dire consequences. Yet sometimes I felt that the movie cheated. (MAJOR SPOILER.) I know, people under stress, split second decision, yadda yadda yadda, but I'm sorry, it strikes me as a contrivance to get us our tragic ending that when the son pulls the gun on Eldard and two cops come running up with their own guns drawn, instead of freezing and gingerly putting the gun down, he swings in confusion and winds up pointing it at them.

And then, as awed as I was as Kingsley's "I want only my son" scene, I was also acutely aware of the issue being at that point in the hands of the screenwriter. Maybe there's something wrong with me.

Those both strike me as flaws in an otherwise brilliant film. Which is why it's not quite top10 material for me, even though I wholeheartedly endorse Ron's review.

J Robert

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  • 3 weeks later...

Oh, and note to Jennifer Connelly buffs:  This is at least the third film, after Dark City and Requiem for a Dream, in which a significant scene depicts her standing out by the far end of a pier.

The same point is noted this week by someone writing in to Movie Answer Man column by Roger Ebert.

The writer is not me. smile.gif

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

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Whoa, I never got around to following up the various posts on this thread last month. Time to catch up!

Alan wrote:

: Part of the awesome irony of this film is that the things these selfish,

: foolish people are fighting over are not that valuable, even to them.

Excellent point!

Ron wrote:

: The moment back in Iran when the colonel ordered that chainsaw to be

: fired up and those mighty trees were leveled, removing any impediment

: between him and the open sea, some terrible erosion began: there was

: nothing to keep their lives from slipping, tumbling off the earth and into

: the ocean like the fog. It was as if he invoked a curse at that moment: in

: his hubris, something dire was unleashed, and we glimpsed it on the face

: of the woman on the beach below, alarm and confusion and a helpless

: anger, her two children running from the sea in a sort of panic.

Interesting -- kinda like, his wife and children were willing to go out to the sea, but he said no, I will stay exactly where I am, and I will change the world around me. The wife and children were able to submit to the world as it is, to meet it on its own terms, whereas the man was not.

: One detail I can't get out of my mind is the way he runs, the way his

: arms and hands kind of just flop. He is utterly unmindful. Running isn't

: something he does much, and he doesn't run pretty. He just goes.

Good point.

stef wrote:

: Speaking of comparing these two films, Peter: Have we ever figured out

: why you disagreed so strongly with the way the children were lied to in

: In America, but not in House of Sand and Fog?

Eh? What makes you think I approve of people lying to their loved ones, in this or any other film? Did I not say, in my very first post to this thread, that "as soon as this movie was over, I had to call my girlfriend and leave her a message telling her I don't ever want to be in a situation where I am 'ashamed' of anything in front of her, or where I feel the need to hide anything from her"?

: How is there anything dishonorable about showing up in America and

: working hard? What is this country founded on if not this principle?

Dude, the guy isn't American! He is a former member of Persian nobility who has had to take crap jobs among the American working class.

SDG wrote:

: I'm sorry, it strikes me as a contrivance to get us our tragic ending . . .

Oh, I agree. This was the one part of the film that didn't entirely work for me -- I began to see not character decisions but plot mechanics. I thought I had said something to that effect already in this thread, but perhaps not.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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Finally got around to seeing this, on its last legs before videoville.

POSSIBLE SPOILERS....

I cried during the whole Kingsley-running-thru-the-streets scene. Wow. Comparing this to Sean Penn's performance, there's no competition. It's almost tragic as Penn is the front-runner, and Kingsley is the dark horse. With Penn, I was able to be distant, think "Wow, Penn is a good actor." With Kingsley, I thought nothing but the true agony of the father and of the moment.

HOWEVER... getting to that scene was nothing but contrivances on the part of the screenwriter. The son didn't have to do what he did... in fact, didn't Kingsley say that he was going to give up the house before the deputy came in an invaded the space? Or is it just a matter of pride (that theme again) that made them not follow thru completely--they'd do it but NOT that way?

I went because I kept reading how Shoreh A. was the dark horse for Supporting Actress, over Renee Zellweeger (Cold Mountain). I thought she was great, but I went with expectations that she would have a breakdown scene, a la Kingsley. The mechanics of the plot denied this, and I felt somewhat cheated. For the scenes she did have, she had moments where she looked as if she pierced right thru you... although I don't know who to credit for this--her, or God, for giving her unusually big eyeballs (how can they not pierce you?).

I'm very late in compiling my Top 10, and I still feel I need to see "Monster" before solidifying it. This should be noted, no other film has moved me to tears this year, but at the same time, no other film has made me angry in the trivial manners to get to those scenes which moved me to tears. A toss-up.

Nick

Nick Alexander

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